CEB: Sales

Harvard Business Manager shares how SAP used Challenger to transform sales effectiveness.

In 2012, software group SAP decided to launch a new way of selling worldwide. In just three years, they turned 5,500 salespeople into creative marketers, who closed significantly more deals.

Customers no longer want our employees merely to explain to them which computer program will best solve their problems: nowadays they already know that. Rather, they expect our sales staff to have an in-depth knowledge of their sector, business processes and relevant key performance indicators. What our customers want to talk about are their business challenges, and they are extremely receptive when salespeople suggest ideas to generate new business.

In 2011, CEB – a best practice insight and technology company – published 'The Challenger Sale' (see p.5 of article). The two authors, Brent Adamson and Matthew Dixon, show that a specific type of salesperson is particularly successful at selling complex products. They call this the 'Challenger' – a salesperson who is able to push his or her customers and advise them how to move out of their comfort zone. Adamson and Dixon described three main steps that Challengers use in their approach to selling: they present their customers with risks and new opportunities for their businesses, teach them something new, and develop tailor-made business strategies using their customers' products and their own knowledge.

CEB’s study proved that this way of selling is extremely successful. There are 4.5 times as many top salespeople in the Challenger group, and their close rates are on average 14% higher than those of other types of salespeople (see box on p.3 of article). Based on CEB’s studies, we conducted an analysis of our own sales staff and found that around half of them were not fulfilling their potential – simply because of the way they worked.

As a result, our Board decided at the end of 2012 to retrain all SAP sales staff worldwide. Our goal was for 5,500 sales staff to be using the Challenger model within three years.

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